474 charged with crimes related to theft of Covid relief funds

(CNN) — Federal investigators identified more than half a billion dollars in fraud and charged 474 people with crimes related to theft of money from US Covid relief programs, the Justice Department announced Friday.

The announcement came one year after the passage of the $2 trillion economic aid legislation known as the CARES Act, which aimed to help people and businesses suffering financial losses in the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the top targets by prosecutors are fraudsters trying to steal from the Paycheck Protection Program, with people running schemes ranging from exaggerating their business expenses to concocting fake companies to get funding. So far, the Justice Department says it has charged 120 people with crimes related PPP fraud.

In one Texas case, a man pleaded guilty to seeking $24.8 million in PPP loans using the names of 11 different companies to make loan applications to 11 lenders. He managed to obtain $17.3 million in forgivable loans and used the money to buy homes, jewelry and luxury cars.

“The impact of our work to date sends a clear and unmistakable message to those who would exploit a national emergency to steal taxpayer-funded resources from vulnerable individuals and small businesses, and we are by no means done,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a prepared statement.

Since the start of the pandemic, prosecutors have charged more than 140 people for unemployment insurance fraud. In one case, a Virginia woman pleaded guilty to stealing identities of people, including prisoners, to get $499,000 in unemployment benefits.

Justice officials are bracing for another wave of attempted fraud as the Biden administration begins rolling out more economic aid in a $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan.

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